Tag Archives: challenge

Some Concerns

As I’m writing this, I’m halfway through the Ultimate Truth Seeker Challenge (although I am still blogging my way through the second of the books I’ve chosen to read). At this point, I think it has become clear to me that there are a few problems have to be dealt with.

  • First, I don’t have the knowledge to evaluate some of the arguments being made in these books. For instance, having read Jesus Interrupted, Reasonable Faith and The Christian Delusion, I’ve found two very different pictures of the historical Jesus. Bart Ehrman argues that Jesus was really a Jewish apocalyptic prophet, who predicted the coming of the kingdom in his day and age. William Lane Craig argues for a more traditional and Christian understanding of Jesus and, if I am not mistaken, makes no reference to other understandings of Jesus (such as the one described by Ehrman). I don’t know what to make of such different and apparently contrary positions without reading more.
  • Second, some of the books set by the challenge are too easy. I’ve skimmed through the contents of Guy P. Harrison’s 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God and I don’t see what I could gain from reading this book. It seems to be aimed at people who have never seriously thought about their beliefs and just take them for granted. Contending with Christianity’s Critics also appears to set the bar a bit low, since it aims to respond to the New Atheists. I’ve read some stuff by Hitchens and Dawkins and others years ago, and while they probably made an impression on me when I was completely new to the debate, I don’t feel I need to deal with them now. What I remember of them doesn’t seem convincing to me.
  • Third, the books don’t seem be interacting well with each other. Granted, I’m only halfway through the list, but the scope of the books I’ve read defending Christianity seems much broader than those of the skeptical works. For example, Reasonable Faith argues that miracles are possible and can be demonstrated to be probable, provides a series of arguments or the existence of God, presents a view of the historical Jesus and also argues that the resurrection is the best explanation for the historical evidence we have. Meanwhile, Jesus Interrupted barely touches upon the question of miracles (and I think Craig provides the better argument here, unless I’ve misread Ehrman somehow) and provides a lot of useful general information about the Bible and the historical Jesus. At best, Ehrman’s book can be opposed to a single chapter in Reasonable Faith. The Christian Delusion (one of the books I’ve read but haven’t reviewed yet) consists of about fifteen essays. Many of these are interesting, and some of them are probably important to keep in mind, but very few of them have anything to say about the arguments found in Reasonable Faith or Layman’s Letters to Doubting Thomas (which I’m reading at the moment). Harrison’s 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God almost certainly doesn’t engage these arguments either, which leaves Richard Carrier’s Sense and Goodness Without God. This seems like a rather heavy burden for a single book to bear, even though I haven’t considered the arguments found in Contending with Christianity’s Critics or Swinburne’s Is There a God?. (One might also mention that Carrier is a historian, not a philosopher, unlike the authors of the apologetic works).

As a solution to these problems, I’m planning to increase my general knowledge relating to these topics. There are a few books I’m considering, although it’s a bit difficult to find which books are reliable (especially about the historical Jesus and the New Testament) . I’m also planning to read more difficult books which discuss these arguments. I’ve already set my eyes on Theism and Explanation by Gregory Dawes, because it looks like it engages with Layman’s Letters to a Doubting Thomas and Swinburne’s Is There a God?. Layman’s book isn’t as advanced, though, so I’ll probably balance things out something else by Swinburne. All this is assuming that I don’t find Theism and Explanation too difficult to read. I’ve never studied philosophy, so this solution might not work for me.

Reading Reasonable Faith: Chapters 3, 4, 5 and 6

This post, unlike all the previous ones, covers four chapters of Reasonable Faith, and will be akin to a quick review rather than an analysis. The reason for this is that there’s a lot of material to read before one can make a proper analysis of these chapters, so instead, I’ll make a few general comments about each one.

The Existence of God

Chapters 3 and 4 provide a series of arguments which support the existence of God. These arguments come in various categories:

  • Cosmological arguments
  • Teleological arguments
  • Ontological arguments
  • Moral arguments

I don’t claim to be able to provide a rebuttal to any of them, nor will I try, but I plan to eventually make available the literature I find and read about each of these arguments.

I guess the important question is whether I find any of these convincing. Right now, I can only say “no”, even though I probably can’t rebut the majority of them. That might seem a little inconsistent, but I think there is some merit in not being convinced too quickly.

First, I have questions about their premises which I can’t answer and that Reasonable Faith doesn’t cover. Second, I don’t enough about the science that relates to one of the cosmological arguments and to the teleological arguments. In the former case, I purposefully avoided reading Craig’s dealing with cosmology, simply because he is not a cosmologist. This might seem lazy and unfair, but so far, I’ve always been disappointed by non-expert theists and atheists who engage with cosmology (though, to be fair, Craig does seem more knowledgeable about it than most people). In any case, I might return to it once I have a better picture of the models Craig discusses and the state of current cosmology. Currently, I have no way to tell if Craig’s presentation of the science is correct, and it seems a bad idea to get my first exposure to the science through a nonscientist. Third, and finally, I know that laymen often underestimate how complicated arguments like these are, and until I have read more about them, I won’t be confident about accepting or not accepting the argument.

History and Miracles

Chapters 5 and 6 deal with history and miracles respectively. The former argues that it is possible for us to know history with some confidence, and deals with various objections to this argument, while the latter argues that miracles are possible and that it is possible for there to be enough evidence for us to believe one has occurred. I disagree with a few minor points in these chapters, but these points are not relevant to the conclusions of these chapters, which I agree with. I won’t go into detail here, because I don’t think the conclusions of these chapters are controversial or require further reading to accept. That said, I’ll probably have a post sometime next week about of these minor points I disagree with, which relates to the slogan, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. I’m not entirely sure that Craig gives this the treatment it deserves, so I’ll look into it in my next post.

My next post on Reasonable Faith should deal with the last two chapters, after which I’ll start reading another book set by the Ultimate Truth Seeker Challenge.


Reading Reasonable Faith: Chapter 2 – The Absurdity of Life without God

Last week, I wrote about Chapter 1 of Reasonable Faith. I described how, according to William Lane Craig, we can know Christianity is true by virtue of our self-authenticating experience of God, and I also discussed some of the problems I had with that chapter. In this post, I will focus on Chapter 2, which called “The Absurdity of Life without God”, and write more generally about some of the traits shared by Chapters 1 and 2.

We have already seen that Chapter 1 consists of an attempt to insulate oneself from all evidence and arguments that contravene the truth of Christianity. In a sense, it is as if the witness of the Holy Spirit should function as damage control for those Christians who come across arguments they can’t deal with. They, according to Craig, already have reasons to believe and believe with confidence that Christianity is true, independently of the arguments and evidence. The latter only provide additional reasons to believe. I won’t repeat my objections to this here. My only point is to say that this chapter feels entirely superfluous to the case Craig makes starting on Chapter 3. I think that if Christianity is true, then we should expect the arguments and evidence to reflect that, and if they don’t, then we should consider what this failure of expectation means, and not simply assume that there must be better arguments to make or stronger evidence to find. It’s hard to think that this chapter isn’t there as a sort of safety net for readers of Craig and budding apologists who are unconvinced by apologetic arguments.

Chapter 2 is similarly superfluous. Craig, after having explained that we already know Christianity is true in Chapter 1, and before describing the arguments for the existence of God in Chapter 3, strives to show that life without God is undesirable, meaningless and purposeless. It’s not an appeal to consequence, because he doesn’t argue that Christianity is true in this chapter (which is what I’m actually interested in). In this sense, it’s unnecessary, since it has no bearing on the question of Christianity’s truth. It’s also unnecessary in another sense. Since, according to Craig, we already know God exists, what is the point of elaborating the implications of God’s nonexistence? The only purpose this chapter seems to serve is give readers something terrifying to tell nonbelievers about their worldview, which might be more effective than the arguments they might reject. Cynically, we might say that this chapter could, in the same way, be more effective on its readers than the ones that follow it. And there’s a good chance of this, because it’s a well-written chapter, with effective rhetoric and several beautifully chosen quotations. At the same, there appears to be very little argumentation. This could be because of the way Craig presents them, which is a bit uncharacteristic in this chapter.

Craig starts, as usual, by giving the topic of the chapter a bit of historical background. After that, he proceeds to talk about the death of human beings and the universe, in rhetorical passages like this one:

“And the universe, too, faces a death of its own. Scientists tell us that the universe is expanding, and the galaxies are growing farther and farther apart. As it does so, it grows colder and colder, and its energy is used up. Eventually all the stars will burn out, and all matter will collapse into dead stars and black holes. There will be no light at all; there will be no heat; there will be no life; only the corpses of dead stars and galaxies, ever expanding into the endless darkness and the cold recesses of space—a universe in ruins. This is not science fiction. The entire universe marches irreversibly toward its grave. So not only is the life of each individual person doomed; the entire human race is doomed. The universe is plunging toward inevitable extinction—death is written throughout its structure. There is no escape. There is no hope.” (p. 72)

In a section titled “No Ultimate Meaning without God and Immortality”, Craig begins his argument:

“If each individual person passes out of existence when he dies, then what ultimate meaning can be given to his life? Does it really matter whether he ever existed at all? It might be said that his life was important because it influenced others or affected the course of history. But this shows only a relative significance to his life, not an ultimate significance. His life may be important relative to certain other events, but what is the ultimate significance of any of those events? If all the events are meaningless, then what can be the ultimate significance of influencing any of them? Ultimately it makes no difference.” (p. 72)

I’m not sure what Craig means here by “ultimate”, so I’m very likely to misread him here. In the context of the words used in this section, it seems that he’s talking about something being important, something really mattering. At the same time, what makes something really matter is in this section tied to what happens to that thing in the future, and it’s not clear to me why this is the case. Why should we think our lives are meaningless if we knew that a billion years from now the human race would be extinct? Furthermore, not having the sort of significance Craig is talking about doesn’t entail that life is meaningless. Consider what Craig writes here:

“And the same is true of each individual person. The contributions of the scientist to the advance of human knowledge, the researches of the doctor to alleviate pain and suffering, the efforts of the diplomat to secure peace in the world, the sacrifices of good people everywhere to better the lot of the human race—all these come to nothing. In the end they don’t make one bit of difference, not one bit.” (p. 73)

If Craig is right, then, after the human race is extinct, it won’t matter ultimately if the human race spends its brief lifetime in a constant state of suffering or progressed to the point where happiness was reached for all. But does that mean that it doesn’t matter at all, at no point in time? Craig continues:

“Each person’s life is therefore without ultimate significance. And because our lives are ultimately meaningless, the activities we fill our lives with are also meaningless. The long hours spent in study at the university, our jobs, our interests, our friendships—all these are, in the final analysis, utterly meaningless.” (p. 73)

Again, this conclusion does not seem to be entailed by what Craig is arguing. Having no ultimate meaning does not preclude having a non-ultimate meaning. I hesitate to formalize the argument in this part, because it’s not easy to discern Craig’s thought process or his definitions in all of this, but the argument may look something like this:

1) Each person’s life has no ultimate meaning.
2) Therefore, each person’s life is meaningless.

This is only logically valid if all meaning relevant to the meaningfulness of our lives is ultimate meaning or is somehow dependent on us having ultimate meaning.  In other words, there might be a suppressed premise which Craig didn’t mention or defend. (It’s possible that Craig is only talking about ultimate meaning and that I have misread what he meant by “utterly meaningless” and “also meaningless” in the context. He later switches to talking about “objective” and “subjective” meanings, and I’m not really sure if these correspond to “ultimate” and “non-ultimate”). Craig, in the section, focuses for the most part on the finitude of life. Without immortality, life wouldn’t be meaningful. But he goes on to argue that life wouldn’t be meaningful without God even if we had immortality. Unfortunately, to support this, Craig for the most part asks us to read Waiting for Godot, references other literary works and fails to provide any additional arguments.

He proceeds to make similar arguments about value (what is right and wrong) and purpose in life, and argues that atheism cannot provide a consistent or happy life, given that life cannot have meaning, value or purpose without God. (This chapter seems to take it for granted that all of these are available if God exists. This may be true, but it doesn’t really bother to argue this.) I won’t discuss purpose or value in this post. Both closely parallel the argument about meaning, and I’ll probably be writing about value when I write about Craig’s moral argument.

I’m not sure what the next post will be about. Since I’ve done all previous chapters in order, I might move on to Chapters 3 and 4, in which Craig argues for the existence of God. But I’m tempted to skip ahead to Chapters 5 and 6, because Chapters 3 and 4 are far more complicated than anything I’ve dealt with so far and I’ll probably need several posts for each. (I would like to treat each argument independently and find the papers that relate to them, but this will take time.) The later chapters are also closer to Christianity than Chapters 3 and 4, which simply argue for the existence of a God, but not necessarily the Christian god.

Reading Reasonable Faith: Chapter 1

As of last week, I’ve been reading William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith, as part of the Ultimate Truth Seeker Challenge. William Lane Craig is an American philosopher, theologian and Christian apologist, who has published a number of popular books and academic works related to Christian apologetics. He is also known for his many formal debates with atheists and Muslims.

Reasonable Faith is a book aimed at a Christian audience. It is geared towards teaching its readers how to argue that Christianity is true and does not give the impression that the author is going to do his best to objectively determine the facts. Rather, the book’s operative assumptions are that Christianity is true, and that non-Christians are wrong. This might seem trivially obvious when said about this kind of book, and one might say there’s nothing significant about it, given that one might think Christianity is true because of the arguments supporting it. Unfortunately, the first two chapters of the book enforce the impressions obtained by reading the introduction. As I’m writing this, I’m halfway through the third chapter, so I’ll preface my criticisms in this post by saying that Reasonable Faith gets much better after the first two chapters. The beginning, especially the first chapter, left me quite disappointed.

The first chapter is entitled “How Do I Know Christianity Is True?” The answer to the question posed by the title is quite simple, and Craig opens with it after giving some historical background about faith. As he writes, “the way we know Christianity to be true is by the self-authenticating witness of God’s Holy Spirit.” He clarifies, adding, “the experience of the Holy Spirit is veridical and unmistakable (though not necessarily irresistible or indubitable) for him who has it.” A person who has this experience “does not need supplementary arguments or evidence in order to know and to know with confidence that he is in fact experiencing the Spirit of God”. Further, “such an experience provides one not only with subjective assurance of Christianity’s truth, but with objective knowledge of that truth; and… arguments and evidence incompatible with that truth are overwhelmed by the experience of the Holy Spirit.” (p. 43)

Craig spends most of the chapter fleshing out the implications of this (before moving on to explain how we can show Christianity to be true, even though we know it is.) In a section titled “The Unbeliever”, Craig claims that unbelievers also have this experience, which confirms God’s existence to them, their guilt before God, and so on. (p. 46) (It’s not clear how Craig knows this; the only evidence in this chapter consists of quotes from the Bible.)  A page later, he adds that:

“when a person refuses to come to Christ, it is never just because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties: at root, he refuses to come because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God’s Spirit on his heart. No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves the darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God.” (p. 47)

He also argues that because of our experience of God, “the only role left for argument and evidence to play is a subsidiary role”. (p. 47) Craig refers to Martin Luther’s distinction between the magisterial and ministerial uses of reason. Craig writes, “The magisterial use of reason occurs when reason stands over and above the Gospel like a magistrate and judges it on the basis of argument and evidence. The ministerial use of reason occurs when reason submits to and serves the Gospel.” Given the witness of the Holy Spirit, “only the ministerial use of reason is legitimate.” (p. 47) Furthermore, “Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa.” (p. 48) This is one of the main problems I have with this chapter; I’ll discuss it below.

Craig adds a few comments about the similarly self-authenticating experiences claimed by adherents of other religions. Regarding this, he makes three points:

  • “The existence of an authentic and unique witness of the Spirit does not exclude the existence of false claims to such a witness. How, then, does the existence of false claims to the Spirit’s witness to the truth of a non-Christian religion do anything to logically undermine the fact that the Christian believer does possess the genuine witness of the Spirit?” (p. 48)
  • When asked “how do you know that your experience isn’t also spurious?”, Craig replies with “the experience of the Spirit’s witness is self-authenticating for him who really has it.” (p. 48)
  • He also addresses one possible objection, the idea that similar, false claims ought to undermine his “confidence in the reliability of the cognitive faculties which form religious beliefs, since those faculties apparently so often mislead people”. To do this, he says that one needn’t believe that these claims are false (meaning adherents of other religions also enjoy such an experience of God) and that this objection “unjustifiably assumes that the witness of the Holy Spirit is a product of human cognitive faculties or is indistinguishable from their outputs.” (p. 49) He writes that he sees “no reason to think that non-veridical religious experiences are indistinguishable from the witness of the Holy Spirit.” He adds that “one way to get empirical evidence for this would be simply to ask ex-Mormons or Muslims who have become Christians if their experience of God in Christianity is identical to what they had before their conversion.”

There are a number of problems with this chapter. I’ll deal with these four:

  • There is no reason to believe that anyone knows Christianity is true because of a self-authenticating experience, or to believe someone who claims to know Christianity is true because of such an experience.
  • There is no reason given in this chapter to think that people who claim not to have such an experience are mistaken or lying.
  • Craig’s objections in regards to the diversity of religious experience ignore or overlook the lack of such an experience claimed by unbelievers.
  • Craig is attempting to insulate himself from anything that contradicts the truth of Christianity.

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Reading Jesus Interrupted – Part 1

Earlier this week I wrote that I would be taking the Ultimate Truth Seeker Challenge made back in 2010 by Luke Muelhauser of commonsenseatheism. Now, I’m halfway through Bart D. Ehrman’s Jesus Interrupted. Ehrman is an agnostic and an author of several popular works about early Christianity and the New Testament. Jesus Interrupted is not a book that sets out to debunk Christianity. Rather, its aim is to present an accessible overview of the scholarly consensus in biblical studies about a number of issues, including Biblical authorship, the reliability of the books found in the Bible and the historical Jesus. Ehrman’s aim, as he explains in the first chapter, is to make known to the churchgoing public what is established and uncontroversial to Biblical scholars. He explains that there is a huge difference between what the public learns from their pastors (at least in the United States) and what academics know about the Bible. This point has particular resonance for me, because it parallels my experience with Christianity. Almost none of this basic information about the Bible was, to my recollection, discussed or explained in the hundreds of sermons I’ve heard or the numerous catechism classes I attended. (I was vaguely aware of the New Testament Apocrypha, which were referred to once and twice in a positive way.)

Ehrman, in the first four chapters, makes three important points, which you can read as a quick summary of the rest of this post.

  1. We don’t know who wrote most of the books in the New Testament. The Gospels were probably not written by eyewitnesses, and there are books or letters whose authenticity is disputed in the New Testament canon.
  2. The authors of these books had different opinions about who Jesus was, and did not necessarily agree with each other about his teachings. They interpreted and presented them differently, leading to discrepancies between them.
  3. These books are not inerrant. There are mistakes, later additions by editors and contradictory claims.

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The Ultimate Truth-Seeker Challenge

Back in 2010, Luke Muelhauser of the now closed commonsenseatheism set up a challenge for Christians and atheists called the Ultimate Truth-Seeker Challenge. This challenge, like John Loftus’s Debunking Christianity challenge, invites people to attempt a rational and careful consideration of their beliefs, by having them read a list of books written by skeptics and Christians alike. I’ve been interested in Loftus’s challenge for a long time, but it’s aimed solely at Christians and thus lists only skeptical works. Luke Muelhauser’s challenge is less one-sided, and as I want to give each side a fair chance to convince me (after a few years of following skeptical blogs and works), I wish to take up the challenge.

Unfortunately, the Ultimate Truth-Seeker Challenge is quite difficult, requiring an advanced knowledge of philosophy and involves reading about 10,000 pages of material. Hence, the easy and more manageable version of the challenge.

I intend to go through the books recommended by the easy version:

This leaves me with a digestible 2600 pages. I’m not likely to follow this particular order, given that I’ve already acquired some of these books, but I will be posting a short review whenever I finish one of them. Along the way, expect me to post questions I have, things I find interesting or relevant, and the like.

I also want to learn more about the history of Christianity and biblical scholarship in general, so I’ll probably do a bit of side-reading while working my way through these.